Recent research suggests that your relationship could be making you gain weight. Here are four tips to help you beat the relationship bulge

By Danielle Groen

Is your partner making you gain weight?

Ah, true love. It’s the stuff of sonnets and pop songs; it launched a thousand ships and a thousand Katherine Heigl movies. And, according to recent research, it can also lead you to gain weight.

The study, published last summer in the medical journal Obesity, sought to establish a link between relationship status and body mass index. Its results are bad news for everyone but the commitment-phobic: After following nearly 7000 individuals across a period of seven years, researchers found that married men and women were twice as likely to become obese as their single counterparts. Study co-author Natalie The—a nutritionist and PhD candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill—discovered that even mere co-habitation upped the risk of weight gain. “Men and women living with a romantic partner for one to two years were more likely to become obese, as well,” she says.

What’s behind the weight gain

The’s study did not examine what caused these couples to become obese, though she speculates that sharing a home can prompt a dramatic shift in eating practices. Jennifer Sygo, a registered dietician and the director of nutrition for Cleveland Clinic Canada, agrees. “We are social creatures of habit, so we’re influenced by the behaviours and beliefs of the people around us. If our partner tends to be more relaxed around eating, we will inevitably pick that up.” We may still maintain our core set of food values: that vegetables are a good idea, say, or that breakfast is the most important meal. But Sygo cautions that if our partner’s laissez-faire attitude toward dinner nudges us “to have a few more desserts, or a bigger portion size, or some extra alcohol, that—though marginal on its own—will add up months and years into the relationship.”

Access may also be at the root of the problem. “A relationship changes the food that’s available,” says Dr. Gwen Chapman, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of British Columbia. “When you have a partner who wants unhealthy snacks and is used to having them, then those snacks are going to be in the house.” If tempting salt-and-vinegar chips are suddenly within arm’s reach, odds are they’re coming back with you to the couch.

And what ever happened to your once-upon-a-time thrice-weekly spin class? That’s simple. “Part of falling in love with someone is engaging in pleasurable activities together. And for many people, that isn’t going to the gym, it’s going to the movies,” says Sygo. “When you’re having fun together, and eating ice cream, and going out for dinner, that takes away from the time you’d otherwise be busting it on the treadmill.”

Four ways to battle the relationship bulge

• Prioritize. When nutritional eating and physical activity is established as a priority in a relationship, you can begin to make the small changes that will ultimately yield major results. Says Sygo, “Couples who believe that their health is important, because their health will affect how they feel, and how they feel will affect their ability to be in a good relationship—they’re the ones with the highest success rates.”

• Communicate. Chapman and Sygo both believe that dialogue is crucial to overhauling unhealthy routines in a relationship. But resist the temptation to storm through the front door and declare the reign of pasta night over; conversation should be non-threatening and inclusive. “People always respond better when they feel that an idea is their own,” Sygo says. “And that doesn’t mean you have to trick them into believing it, but rather you need to let them initiate some of the change.” Exchange suggestions about foods you could stand to lose from the fridge, or exercise you could start incorporating into your day.

• Strategize. Maybe the first step is as simple as walking together to a favourite restaurant, instead of taking the car. Maybe it’s cutting out those calorie-loaded soft drinks. Maybe it’s trading the Chinese delivery for a stir-fry made at home. “People should take a few measures to make improvements, then begin to bump it up,” Chapman advises. “Because if you take on too much at one time, you’re unlikely to be successful.” She suggests chucking some of the junk food and stocking enough ingredients to make four to six meals in a pinch. But don’t abandon everything you love. “Food is about health, but it’s also about pleasure and tradition,” says Chapman. “You don’t want to be too rigid about it.”

• Collaborate. It’s not impossible to separate your eating habits from your partner’s, or to maintain a different standard of fitness, but it’s far from ideal. Achieving your health goals is dependent on the amount of support you receive, and Sygo warns that when couples don’t work together, it can lead to friction, resentment, and even sabotage. “Collaborate so you can each have ownership over what’s on your plate at dinner,” she says. “Find an activity that’s enjoyable for you both to do, whether it’s taking up tennis, joining a sports league, or trying dragon boating or something a bit off the wall.” Sure, bad behaviour may be contagious, but good habits can be, as well.

Related:
How to make exercise a habit
How to eat well without spending big
10 snacks that will help you lose weight

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Web exclusive, April 2010

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